How we age isn’t an entirely inevitable process. Still, there is no agreement on the definitive reason why some people continue to be relatively healthy into their nineties while others appear frail much earlier. Most writers agree that genetics, lifestyle, environment, economic, cultural and social factors all play a part in how we age, but more research is needed into the precise interplay of these factors.
Many of these issues were explored in a recent documentary called Immortal? A Horizon Guide To Ageing in which Johnny Ball reviewed 45 years of BBC science programmes on discoveries about the ageing process. The veteran presenter found no consensus on exactly why we grow old but instead offered an overview of the dominant theories of ageing, including:
Immunosenescence. Most associated with pioneering 1960s gerontologist Roy Walford, the theory links ageing to a gradual deterioration of the immune system, which Walford called ‘immunosenescence’. Many subsequent studies have shown a link between immune dysfunction and various conditions associated with ageing.
Shortening telomeres. Telomeres are found at the end of chromosomes (coiled strands of DNA found in every living cell). When a cell divides, the telomeres are believed to act as a buffer, protecting the DNA from the division process. After a certain number of divisions, the telomeres can no longer protect the DNA and the cell dies. There has been much attention given to this theory in recent years, but the research doesn’t yet account for the fact that the cells in many of our organs (eg brain, heart) do not divide, or why, as Swedish researchers found in 2009, some people’s telomeres actually lengthen as they get older.
Oxidation. A process in which electrons from a substance are transferred to what is known as an ‘oxidising agent’. Oxidisation processes are critical for normal cell function and occur all day, every day, but produce ‘free radicals’, an excess of which can cause damage to DNA and proteins. Antioxidants react with free radicals to neutralise them.
Glycation. Glycation is the result of a sugar molecule bonding with another molecule such as a protein. Glycation disrupts normal metabolic pathways and results in the formation of damaging ‘advanced glycosylation end-products’ (AGEs). The formation of AGEs increases with consistently high or widely fluctuating blood sugar levels. Expect more mainstream focus on glycation in the coming months and years, especially as more research is done into the potential of natural substances such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cumin, and green tea for preventing AGEs.
Ten tips for staying young at heart
1. Find peace. Whether it’s meditation, gardening, painting or a personal spiritual practise, enjoy mental relaxation every day. This doesn’t mean just watching TV. A study by the University of Maryland analysing data over 30 years found a strong association between high levels of TV viewing and self-reported unhappiness (Robinson & Martin, 2008).
2. Eat the rainbow. Though energy requirements fall as we age, our need for nutrients increases. Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are bursting with free-radical scavenging nutrients (antioxidants). Eat a wholesome, varied diet and cook from scratch if you can. Not only is it usually healthier on your body and pocket, cooking can be fun and rewarding, especially if you have a friend over.
3. Eat the Rainbow Trout. In recent years, much attention has been given to the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids. These are substances that the body cannot manufacture but which are needed for normal body metabolism. Omega 3s have applications in neurological, cardiological and immune system health, and are of major importance to eye and brain health. Though there are some plant sources such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds , much higher values are to be found from oily fish such as trout, salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna and herring. Eat regularly and/or try supplementing with a good quality purified oil such as Quest’s Marine Omega 3.
4. Nurture relationships. A recent paper linked face-to-face social interaction with improved health and well-being, Sigman A et al, 2009. The author noted that those with more social support appear to have more efficient immune function and that just 10 minutes of social interaction a day can improve cognitive perfomance.
5. Drink water. Just because you’ve heard it a thousand times doesn’t make it any less true. (The same goes for the one about quitting smoking!) Clean, uncaffeinated water is essential for digestive and joint comfort, and countless body processes. Sipping warm water throughout the day also helps to keep you warm.
6. Use your freedom. If you’re now free from the shackles of employment and a young family, use your new-found freedom. Volunteer for a charity close to your heart, and get out and visit local shops and amenities such as libraries, museums and leisure centres. If travel is an issue, consider car-sharing or joining a car club.
7. Be your own health advocate. Find out the best foods to eat and supplements to take for you. Learn about how techniques such as TaiChi, the Alexander Technique and therapies such as Shiatsu, Herbalism and others could also help you.
8. Keep active. Even a modest amount of activity such as walking to the shops, taking the stairs and taking the dog to the park can benefit heart health, circulation and bone density. That’s not all; a recent study found regular exercise to be as effective as medication in improving symptoms of depression.
9. Get gutsy! Helpful bacteria (pro-biotics), are constantly fighting off would-be invaders in our intestines and are an essential part of our immune system. The amount of good bacteria dips as we age, so supplementation is often a good idea.
10. Value your tenure. Whatever your particular life experiences, you will have witnessed a lot over the years and are a smarter, tougher cookie for it all. Celebrate that and be fearless. There are plenty of great books out there on ageing positively, such as John Lane’s The Art of Ageing: Inspiration for a Positive and Abundant Life.
Five Supplements to Consider Taking
New anti-aging products regularly appear on the market. If we were to take them all, chances are our cupboards would be full and our bank accounts empty. A professional such as a Medical Herbalist will be able to offer you expert individual advice. Here are just five popularly chosen items that are commonly said to contribute to healthy ageing:
1. Fish oils Many studies have linked the Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oils to a reduction of symptoms in various inflammatory conditions and a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease. Low levels of these fatty acids have been associated with lower mood, memory loss, visual problems and other conditions of the nervous system. Fish oils have a blood-thinning effect, so always consult your health professional if you take Warfarin or other anti-coagulants.
2. Antioxidants. Antioxidants react with damaging free radicals to neutralise them. Solgar’s Advanced Antioxidant Formula contains substances needed for the production of Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), a powerful antioxidant compound generated by the body.
3. Probiotics. Believe it or not, a healthy gut contains up to 1kg of good bacteria (probiotics). Probiotics provide compounds essential to immune health, healthy digestion and help make the intestines inhospitable places for pathogenic (‘bad’) bacteria, parasites and yeasts. As we age, the levels of probiotics naurally decrease, so it’s worthwhile considering a good quality supplement.
4. CoQ10 is essential to the mitochondria (the ‘power plants’ or ‘batteries’) of every single living cell. As we age levels can decline so supplementation may be useful. See our November 2012 newsletter for more information on CoQ10.
5. B Vitamins are needed for many physical processes, including the production of energy and the health of the nervous system. B6 and B12 have been of particular interest in relation to cognitive function and emotional wellbeing and in 2010 researchers from Oxford University, (Smith et al, 2010 ) found that supplementation with these vitamins and folic acid (also known as folate or B9) reduced brain shrinkage in subjects by an average of 30%.
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Blumenthal et al, Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder, Psychosomatic Medicine, Sep 2007, 69(7)587-96
Nordfjäll K et al, The Individual Blood Cell Telomere Attrition Rate Is Telomere Length Dependent. PLoS Genetics, February 13, 2009
Passwater R,Lipoic Acid: The Metabolic Antioxidant, Keats Publishing, Los Angeles, 1996Robinson JP & Martin S. What do happy people do? Social Indicators Research, December 2008, v89 n3, p565-571
Sigman A et al, Well Connected? The Biological Implications of Social Networking, Biologist, Feb 2009, v56, 14-20
Smith AD et al, Homocysteine-Lowering by B Vitamins Slows the Rate of Accelerated Brain Atrophy in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial, PLoS ONE, Sep 2010, Vol 5, Issue 9, e12244
Walford, R, The Immunologic Theory of Aging, The Gerontologist, 1964, vol 4 pp 195-197
Garlic, QuestHealthLibrary.com Accessed 28 October 2012